Monday, June 28, 2010

And Now, My Pretty, I have you in my Power...

I've been re-reading a Mary Stewart book. I used to adore her when I was a teenager. Now I found her plot annoyingly improbable. Evil Nazi wants man dead so sends his mistress to marry him, make it look as if he killed his best friend and then to be hanged for it. Wouldn't it have been easier to hire a sharp shooter and finish him off through the window of his car?

I feel the same way when a brutal killer locks up the heroine, keeping her alive for no real reason other than that the book would finish earlier and less satisfactorily if he killed her. I think I have become less tolerant of illogical plots since I became a mystery writer. Ditto weak motives for murder. It would take something pretty terrible to make me kill--protecting my child, revenging my child maybe. I don't think I'd kill if a bad secret about me was about to be revealed--I suppose it depends how bad. I certainly wouldn't kill to get my hands on money, or someone else's husband. And certainly not to let my daughter make the cheerleading squad as some woman did in Texas.

I suppose we writers have to examine our plots in such meticulous detail that we're now aware of the flaws in others. For example although I adore Harry Potter I can see so many inconsistencies. For example characters can aspirate to move instantly from place to place, yet when the Order of the Phoenix members come to rescue Harry, they use broomsticks--surely a more dangerous way to escape. And why can't Harry point his wand at himself and improve his eyesight so that he doesn't have to wear glasses? Isn't there a "reparo" spell for shortsightedness? The point is that if it is a magic universe, then magic should be able to take care of everything, shouldn't it?

There are the obviously dumb plot twists, of course... the heroine going down to the basement, carrying a candle, in the middle of the night, when the phone lines are out in a storm... because she hears a noise... and there's a serial killer in the neighborhood. I hope I've never written anything like that. Please shoot me if I have.

Do other writers find that they get annoyed with illogical plots or plot inconsistencies, or can you overlook them if the story is good otherwise? And what about motives? I think the motive for murder is the first thing I come up with when I'm toying with a book idea--before deciding who my killer or victim might be.

HANK: I'll come back and write more when I stop laughing after thinking about why Harry can't fix his eyesight. OCULOSO!

HALLIE: Laughing too, about Harry Potter. Aspirate? What a lovely transposition of the term she uses, which I think is apparate (and its converse, disapparate). LOVE the Harry Potter vocabulary. Rowlings rivals the best of Roald Dahl (anyone remember 'frobscottle' in "The BFG? It's a fizzy drink with bubbles that float DOWN instead of up resulting in surfeit of 'whizzpopping.' Or disgusting snozzcumbers?)

Being a mystery writer sure takes the fun out of reading, with that little critic sniping away in my head. Illogical plot twists and dumb characters drive me nuts, not to mention stuff that only authors notice like sliding viewpoint. But oh, what pleasure when a book delivers!

RO: Can't weigh in on Harry Potter - haven't read and haven't seen.
Yes and no. A lot of us write amateur sleuths so our characters are by definition not going to do what a regular person would do. I hope I haven't ventured into TSTL territory (too stupid to live)but I'm not writing about myself so my character can and must be more adventurous. Simply calling the cops is not an option. I'm not going to have her take on a gang of bikers with only a weed whacker and a set of keys (oh, wait, she may have done that in book two...)but within reason she can get in and out of trouble.

It did bother me in one chapter of a recent read, but the rest of the book was so good I gave the author a bye. I'm still pretty new so perhaps I'm more forgiving. And I rarely finish mysteries I don't like, so perhaps it just doesn't come up that much for me.

Personally I'm relieved to learn it would take a lot to drive you to murder - some of my characters are not so well-adjusted.

JAN: So if we are being completely honest.....the answer is no. If the book is written in a realistic style, I can't forgive an illogical plot twist. I'm a total witch about it. (Comedic or stylistic books are a different story.)

This is one of the real reasons I don't read many thrillers, particularly male-written thrillers. They tend to start out brilliantly with a really interesting, fast action and logical plot. Then, at the end, as if there's some sort of ongoing contest these writers have to outdo each other, they go for ONE LAST PLOT TWIST. And frankly, I always find them preposterous.

Examples? I don't want to get too specific, or I'll ruin the books for anyone who hasn't read it. But since this one has already been made into the movie and widely seen... . I'll say that I absolutely loved Dennis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone, with its rich and brilliantly written characters until....The end. I found the final plot twist and motivation for the kidnapping, not just stupid, but preposterous. So illogical and unrealistic -- in a book written in a realistic style -- that It ruined the book for me. (My son saw the movie, and without us discussing the book first, came home with the exact same reaction.)

The worst part is that the final, irrational plot twist is usually completely unnecessary, just tagged on at the end. This has happened to me in at three other thrillers, each by a different best-selling male author.

HANK: Just chiming in--yes, the endings are so difficult! Because something BIG has to happen. And the proof of the difficulty is that so often the ending is outrageous. The worst ever: Angels and Demons. Sorry ,Dan. But you can't jump out of a...oh, I don't want to ruin it for anywone who hasn't read it. But trust me, it CANNOT happen.

ROBERTA: That "go down in the basement" thing is very hard to resist, though, especially with amateur sleuths as Ro points out. My agent is currently circulating a new book in which exactly that happens. But my character is a Realtor and someone left a light on in her client's basement. She HAS to go! the key may be building the character up clearly enough so that her motivation for doing something ridiculous hangs together and doesn't pull the reader out of the story.

I would say that I'm a pretty forgiving reader. I love Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford series but the plots have become more and more preposterous. But I read them anyway because I'm crazy about Doc.

RHYS: Sorry about the 'aspirate' versus apparate mix up. I have just blogged on my solo blog ( that my brain and hands don't always coordinate which results in horrible typing bloopers. Example in point "she shook her fish at him."
I think the problem wish so many thrillers is that the writer comes up with a brilliant concept--wouldn't it be great if... but it's not thought through to a logical ending. Maybe there isn't a satisfactory outcome for the particular concept so you wind up with unbelievable endings.

So friends--how tolerant are you of improbably plot twists?


  1. Oh, you guys are having fun! I just was writing to several friends about my disappointment that superb editors are fading from the scene, and published work suffers accordingly. While reading an author I've not explored before, I happened to read the first book in a series, noting a few slightly irritating but forgivable flaws, but enjoying the book nonetheless. But, reading the most recent book in the series, I found that not only did the flaws persist, six or eight books later, but also that the author had just phoned in some passages or whole chapters, clearly just to get from one plot point to another. I was so disappointed; but a good editor would have caught that and brought it to the attention of the author. No, I'm not talking about any of you!

  2. It's always tough to realize that mystery writers are often held to a higher standard than life itself. For example, a Texas mother DID commit murder over a cheerleading spot, and once when we heard a noise downstairs, my husband and I DID investigate instead of locking the bedroom door and calling the cops.

    Faced with a crisis, maybe we're all more adventuresome than we think.

  3. Intolerant. I quit reading Faye Kellerman after she set up a story by having a commercial jetliner crash into a building where a man on the plane had hidden a body years earlier. (That's not exactly it--I read it a while ago--but the coincidence was too enormous to swallow.) My 13-yr-old told me just yesterday that she quit reading a book she'd checked out because things kept happening by coincidence. So it's not just us writers who are critical!

  4. Oh, Laura -- I read that book too and I couldn't believe that coincidence either -- and the entire plot rests on it. I kept thinking, she's going to explain it so it didn't just happen to happen, somehow it was deliberate (the body got planted after the crash?) But that never happened. I do hope that when I get to be a NY Times best selling author (YES!) that editors will keep telling me things that they don't want me to hear. My editor right now is great at letting nothing slide by, and I am eternally grateful.

  5. I remember that Mary Stewart book...Isn't it 'Madam, Will You Talk'? (Sorry if I've ruined the surprise for you future readers of Mary Stewart... but, really, will you even remember this comment?)I've reread that book several times in my youth because I could never recall the finale. Apparently, my brain could never wrap the plot around it. It was a silly ending, scar included.

  6. It's the stupid twists in the middle of the book that get to me. Our heroine comes into possession of an important piece of evidence. What does she do with it? Does she promptly hand it over to the police? Oh, no--she sticks it in her pocket and goes home. Why? Because if she gave it to the police, the book would end at page 127.

  7. Camille,
    It's so true, honest-to-goodness reality just doesn't cut it in fiction all the time.

    Even in non-fiction, which I'm writing now, the defendant does something so stupid, I'm not sure I can include it in the book.

  8. For the first time ever, I recently wanted to throw a book across the room. The author had introduced all of her characters, had a nice little mystery going until page 186 (out of 257 pages)when she brings in a new character. Guess who the villain was?

    I went back through the book to see if maybe I had missed meeting this new person. Nope.

    How's this for irony? My wv: waylate!

  9. Yet agents are selling these books. Publishers are publishing them. Buyers are buying them. Reviewers are praising them. I agree with the frustration of improbable/ludricous plot twists and character behavior, but perhaps we as writers could look at this as a license to relax our standards and give the people what they want.

  10. Harry Potter is not the perfect human being. That is why he IS the perfect hero.

  11. I love the Perry Mason cover. I just spent 2 weeks in Austin at UT going through all of the Erle Stanley Gardner papers there.

    One that always bugs me is an unrealistic use of hypnosis or amnesia. Yes, they exist, but hypnosis won't make you go shoot someone.

  12. I get frustrated by plots that depend on not carrying or remembering to charge a cell phone. Of course that happens in real life but I cringe when I read that the the amateur detective is heading into danger but won't be able to use a cell phone for some flimsy reason.

  13. I have to agree with Sheila, stupid plot twists tick me off, too. Though most of the time I'm a forgiving reader and will finish the story to see if it makes sense in the end.

    In my critique group, I'm the one that usually points out the illogical parts. I sometimes don't understand how the others don't pick up on certain things when it seems so blatant to me. Maybe I'm too crtical.

    And Jan, if it's non-fiction and the action actually happened then why can't you put it in? I think that's part of the difference between fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction you can show how stupid some people can be because it's true and in fiction you don't want anybody in your story who is that dumb for fear people won't believe the character or plot.

    It reminds me of an old Dragnet episode where Friday was called to a domestic distrubance of a wife throwing an egg timer at her husband. At the end of the show, it states (paraphrasing) the scenes you just saw are true.... to this day, I still wonder if the egg timer thrower was real.

  14. I agree with Sheila and Connie. It's frustrating to me to read a book where the main characters do something thoroughly stupid that has a big impact on the plot, without any explanation to try to make it atleast not seem so stupid. I even get tired of a plot where a main character intends to pass on a critical message but keeps getting interrupted, sidetracked or forgetting to do so.

  15. What an entertaining post. Aspirate. Love it. In mysteries, I like the detective, at least, to have and to use common sense. This is not to say that she can't be tricked or forced to the TSTL cliff.
    However, in the spy-thrillers I read, I say, the twistier the better.

    Because I have a hunch that's the way it really is.